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Sorry, it's a 'Fail' for out-of-date sex education classes

By Fionola Meredith

Published 25/09/2015

Rev David McIlveen
Rev David McIlveen

My reaction to the news that 40% of all births in Northern Ireland now happen outside marriage, rising to almost 60% in Belfast and Derry, can be summed up in one word. So?

Does it really need pointed out, yet again that children can have a perfectly happy, secure and supportive upbringing without their parents being bound "in wedlock"?

Haven't we moved on from the days when unmarried mothers and their children were shamed, reviled and ostracised?

Free Presbyterian minister Rev David McIlveen sounded like a voice from another century when he used the new figures as an opportunity to fulminate against the moral corruption of Ulster. "Young people are unable to make a distinction between lust and love," he said, and this flagrant disrespect for "traditional values" apparently means that we are "swinging towards a promiscuous society".

Of course, this kind of response from a Free Presbyterian is about as familiar and predictable as the perceived religious orientation of the Pope, or the defecatory habits of bears in forests. I put it down to a deep-rooted fear of uncontrolled female sexuality (which is also, I imagine, why Free Presbyterian women always wear hats to church - all that tempting hair must be kept covered up, or who knows what appalling things could happen).

The apocalyptic scenario of rampant teens bent on destroying the moral fabric of society with their insatiable appetites has no basis in reality. The generalising slur that "young people" - what, all of them? - are incapable of distinguishing between love and lust is as unfair and demeaning as it is grossly inaccurate.

Besides, births outside the hallowed sanctuary of marriage don't just happen to teenagers. They're just as likely to occur to a mother-of-three in a committed, loving partnership of 20 years as they are to a 16-year-old schoolgirl.

So there's no need for a moral panic. We aren't about to tip into heedless anarchy.

What there is a real need for, however, is a radical overhaul of sex education in our schools so that unwanted pregnancies are less likely to occur, and where they do, full, objective and independent advice is given.

Right now the majority of schoolchildren in Northern Ireland (75%) receive their relationship and sexuality education (RSE) from an evangelical Christian organisation called Love for Life.

With its core belief in the "value and dignity of human life from conception to natural death", it provides the kind of guidance that even the Rev McIlveen would approve of, I feel sure.

I ended up withdrawing both my children from these Love for Life sessions because I wanted them to understand sex with a loving partner as a natural part of a fulfilling adult life, not something to be avoided until wedlock for fear of contracting a dirty disease.

Nobody wants their offspring to rush into a sexual relationship too soon, but I found the implicit message of "wait until you're married, kids" to be unhelpful and redundant in today's social climate.

And I felt deeply uncomfortable about the advice concerning crisis pregnancy, which directs youngsters to hardline Christian anti-abortion organisations like Care Confidential and Life, but not to independent support services such as the FPA (Family Planning Association). God knows how the gay kids in the class felt about the Love for Life sessions, but I didn't get the impression that there was much affirmative support and targeted advice for them.

The good news is that there is a recognised need for change and improvement. An Education and Training Inspectorate report into the provision of RSE in post-primary schools highlighted the requirement for revised RSE guidance, especially around sensitive subjects like sexual orientation. Just last month, CCEA (Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment) provided new RSE guidance on behalf of the Department of Education.

The CCEA guidance seeks the provision of "reliable, accurate and timely age-appropriate information".

It says that "all young people have the right to high quality Relationships and Sexuality Education that is relevant to their lives today", and calls for "up-to-date, accurate and accessible information about reproduction, sex and sexual health matters". It acknowledges that many LGBT young people feel excluded in RSE classes, and speaks of the need to challenge homophobic bullying in schools.

This all sounds like progress to me. But a great deal more must be done to transform RSE in Northern Ireland into the fully-inclusive source of information, advice and empowerment that our children deserve.

Belfast Telegraph

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